I always wanted to like Montmartre, but never did. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I’d visited a number of times and every time had an even darker view. The place just seemed rundown, lacking the beauty characteristic of my favorite parts of Paris and invariably took a long time to get to. Plus it was always packed with the kind of tourists I hate- the ones that throng Times Square in New York City and make it impossible to walk down the street. In fact, I think it’s the only place worse than Times Square in that respect.
Thus it was with much trepidation that I let a friend of mine convince me to visit and take a walking tour. Normally I hate tours- the few I’ve been on haven’t always ended well (thus the reason Rick Steves basically hates me but that’s a whole other story). However this one was extremely interesting and for the first time I appreciated, and even came to like, Montmartre.
The reason it feels so far away from Paris is because it is, both geographically and historically. I learned that for centuries Montmarte was a separate community from Paris. In fact, one used to have to pay a tax to enter Paris. Many of its inhabitants rarely ventured into the city for this reason.
History and windmills
Montemarte dates back to Roman times- it was initially called Mons Martis (Mountain of Mars). Excavations at the Fontaine-du-bat found remains of Roman baths dating from the 2nd Century. The Romans also erected a temple to Bacchus- Montmarte’s links to viticulture continue to this day.
In 250 AD, the Christian bishop St. Denis was decapitated, by orders of the Roman Prefect Fescennius Sisinius, on the hilltop for preaching the Christian faith. According to legend, after the sword struck he picked up his head, carried it to the Fontaine Saint-Denis then descended the north slope of the hill before he died. After this remarkable event, the Mons Martis became known as the Mont des Martyrs, which was eventually shortened to Montmarte.
By the 15th century it had become an agricultural community. The village was surrounded by vineyards, gardens and orchards of peach and cherry trees. Windmills were built on the hill in 1529. They ground wheat, barley and rye, and then later gypsum (which was quarried under the streets of Montmarte). At one time there were thirteen mills on the hill. Now, none of them are functional but vestiges still remain. There are two original windmills. The first is Le Moulin Blute-Fin (now called Le Moulin de la Galette). It can be seen from Rue Lepic. It is called de la Galette because originally, the flour from the mills was used to make little cakes, called galette, that were served along with wine in Montmarte. Basically, they’re like French tapas: something originally served with wine to keep one from getting too drunk. The other windmill, Le Moulin Radet (also renamed Le Moulin de la Galette) is around the corner, sitting atop the bistro named, you guessed it . . . Le Moulin de Galette. Le Moulin Blute-Fin is featured in paintings by Picasso, Van Gogh and Renoir. There are also a number of windmill replicas, the most famous being the one at Le Moulin Rouge.
In 1790 the revolutionary government formally gave the village the status of Commune of Montmarte. It remained independent until January 1, 1860, when it and neighboring communities were annexed into Paris- it is now part of the 18th arrondissement.
Although no working windmills remain, there is still a working vineyard in Montmarte called Clos Montmarte (Rue des Saules). I learned on my tour that there are a few vineyards in Paris, but the most famous one is here. They used to make red wine until very recently, when they hired a professional winemaker who told the residents their vines were much better suited to making rosé (primarily from gamay and pinot noir grapes). They now do that. You can taste this wine at the Fête des Vendages, an annual festival held during the harvest (October). I haven’t tasted it so can’t vouch for it, but am told it’s not bad. The vineyards produce roughly 1,700 bottle per vintage. Fermentation is done in the cellar of the town hall and local artists design all the labels. The wine isn’t cheap given its quality (roughly 45€ per bottle), but all proceeds from sale of the wine go to support local charities.
The Bohemian Era
During the Belle Époque, artists were drawn to Montmarte for two reasons: low rents and cheap wine (it was tax free). In fact, wine fueled the bohemian lifestyle favored by so many artists. Many of the great ones, like Toulouse Lautrec, were admittedly alcoholics. Toulouse Lautrec argued that he drank because it was the only thing that relieved the constant pain he felt in his legs. He broke both of them when he was young due to a congenital illness he suffered that caused him to have very brittle bones.
Many of the great modern artists had studios and/or homes here: Lautrec, Vincent Van Gogh, Raoul Dufy, Amedeo Modigliani, Pierre-August Renoir and arguably the greatest of them all, Pablo Picasso. In fact, Picasso kept his studio in Place Emile-Goudeau for many years, even after he could afford the rent in Saint-Germain-des-Prés (where he painted La Guernica). He did this so he could have contact with, and receive inspiration from, up and coming new artists.
Although their homes/ateliers are all privately owned, it is interesting to walk the streets and look at the facades.
The most interesting ones of note:
Van Gogh’s house and studio: 54, Rue Lepic
Dali Museum: 54, Rue Poulbot
Renoir’s house: 6, Rue de l’Abreuvoir
Picasso’s studio (also home of many other artists including Modigliani- now it’s impossible to get a studio here as they are all rent controlled and someone must die before a new tenant is allowed): Bateau Lavoire, #13 Place Emile-Goudeau
Toulouse-Lautrec: 27, Rue de Coulaincourt, 19, bis Rue de Fontaine. Lautrec also lived in many brothels in the neighborhood for months at a time. Although physically challenged, Toulouse-Lautrec was said to be a great bon vivant and had many friends- including prostitutes and dancers. His first lithograph, La Goulue, was the first to feature an individual dancer. It is not only important for its artistic merit, but commercially: it was arguably the first use of a celebrity in advertising, and Lautrec is often considered the first graphic designer. La Goulue, also called the Queen of Montmarte, was a famous dancer. She was called La Goulue (the Glutton) because she would often finish the half empty glasses of wine left on the tables in her venues. She was the highest paid entertainer of her day.
It’s an ironic turn of history that the red-light district of Paris is named after Pigalle. He was a sculptor and very pious- you can see some of his work in St. Sulpice. He must have rolled over in his grave when he heard that his name has become synonymous with seedy dance clubs and prostitution. This is in the lower part of Montmarte- you can walk around the Pigalle Metro and get a feeling for what it’s like. I personally need no more than about five minutes to get the general idea and decide I want to move on.
Aside from the above, I recommend visiting Sacre Coeur and the Church of St. Pierre. The Church of St. Pierre is old and lovely- it even contains ancient Roman columns. The Moulin Rouge is also worth a walk past.
Where to eat
I have eaten at a number of places in Montmarte. Only one has particularly stood out: Le Sancerre, located at 35 Rue des Abbesses. It doesn’t have a Michelin star or anything, but my food was excellent and it was reasonably priced. If you visit during the holidays, make sure to get some hot mulled wine at the little stand outside the Church of St. Pierre. It’s the perfect way to warm up and feel part of the Montmarte culture (although at 5€ it’s not particularly cheap)
How to get there
There are a few choices. My recommendation it to take the Metro (Line 12) to Abbesses. Make sure to take the elevator up to street level as the station is very deep. Wind your way slowly up the hill, ending at Sacre Coeur. Then, trace your steps back towards the Church of St. Pierre. Along the way, note the large, high wall on your right- that is actually the reservoir where Montmarte’s water is pumped to from the city of Paris down below. On your right you will see a bus stop. From there you can jump on the local bus (you can use a Metro ticket from the City of Paris) and take it down to Abbesses Metro to have lunch at Le Sancerre, or take it to the terminus at Pigalle Metro. From there you can walk to the Moulin Rouge, have a look then return to Paris via Line 12.